Movie Review: Those Who Wish Me Dead
DISCLAIMER: I used my HBO Max subscription to watch this film. It is available in theaters and if you have been FULLY vaccinated and go to a theater with safety measures in place, it's my understanding it is safe to do so. Yet, you may want to read the review and decide for yourself if it's worth it.
Those Who Wish Me Dead is about Hannah, a smokejumper and wildfire fighter in Montana, who is dealing with the trauma of losing colleagues and civilians in last year's wildfire season. Her life is about to collide with Connor, whose father is a forensic accountant who stumbled upon some shady dealings and is now sought after by hitmen. Connor's uncle, Ethan, a sheriff's deputy, is also caught up in the case as he tries to investigate his brother in law's strange phone call and keep his wife, Allison, a trained survivalist and survival teacher, and unborn child out of harms way. All this against the backdrop of a wildfire started by the two hitmen hunting all of them. The film stars Angelina Jolie, Finn Little, Jon Bernthal, Aiden Gillen, Nicholas Hoult, Jake Weber, Medina Senghore, Tory Kittles, James Jordan, and Tyler Perry. The film is directed by Taylor Sheridan and written by Sheridan, Michael Koryta, and Charles Leavitt. The film is in theaters and streaming on HBO Max for the next 30 days.
I want to start by reminding you I have no experience in the world of psychology, but I think it's an absolutely negligent idea for a person with obvious and pervasive post traumatic stress as well as suspected suicidal ideations to be ordered to sit in a very tall tower alone with their thoughts. That seems irresponsible and an absolute recipe for disaster. Obviously, it's a way for the plots to converge, but it's one of many things that seem very backwards about the plot devices in this film. This is much the same problem I have had with other films both written and directed by Taylor Sheridan.
I approach Taylor Sheridan films with a healthy trepidation. Most of his films, even if they're adapted from a source material, as this one is, find a way to approach masculinity and the masculine ideal. Always, these films depict the most skin crawlingly frustrating traits in men. There's the homophobia, the one upmanship, the idea that power, force, or a way to dress is what makes a man and even when a man achieves these goals, he's still less than because each man has to keep challenging each other into being more worthy of existence.
Though, the reason that I don't cut Sheridan films out of my viewing is because I wait for his turn. In nearly all of his films there is a man within these men, or adjacent to these men, who is able to be above, apart and also a beacon for what the true idealized masculinity should be. In Those Who Wish Me Dead, that's Ethan, played by Jon Bernthal. Ethan is a protector who trusts the people he's protecting, he's commanding without any sort of domineering attitude, he's caring, loving, empathetic, and he sticks to his beliefs without imposing them on others. I only wish there weren't so many scenes with the first group to poison the well. It's always more fun to be in charge and impose your own rule over others, so more often that is what people will latch to. Continuing to show these kinds of masculinity, even as a contrast to Ethan's masculinity, will continue the toxic culture masculinity breeds because even if these guys are assholes, they still saved the day.
All we really know about any character are the surface details anyway, though. Hannah is defined by her adrenaline and trauma. Connor is defined as a kid, but also his trauma. Ethan is defined by his lawful good nature. The hitmen, well the hitmen are the most confounding. Like all hitmen, the ones in Those Who Wish Me Dead are likely motivated by a combination of money and an underlying, unspoken, but understood sociopathy, that's all we get of them. There's no depth here even to the plot, it's a straight story of survival, man vs. man vs. man-made natural disaster.
That's where this film becomes bafflingly and convolutedly strange as our survivalists and, let's face it, a wilderness John McClane in the form of Angelina Jolie, are able to survive some tremendously ridiculous circumstances. Because the central mystery, the reason the hitmen are killing people and willing to kill a child and torture a pregnant woman, is inconsequential, the survival element is the only thing necessary to drive the characters forward. I guess, as a viewer, I'm over the idea of a MacGuffin without actual human character moments. It was nice to get a relationship between Connor and Hannah, but it was stilted, guarded and not enough to get me truly invested in them.
I was much more invested in Ethan's storyline and that's mostly due to the tremendous talent of Jon Bernthal. Bernthal looks like, and exudes, an aura of no-nonsense tough guy, but more than any other actor who is type cast in the way he often is, he's able to pull the hero out of that trope and build a whole human being. I feel like he's taken to these smaller, more character driven parts because he can show much more of his range. I'm so much more invested when I see him on screen when he's the hero because I like his take on the strong male.
Sheridan does hire people, like Bernthal, who make his films look haunting and beautiful behind the camera, too. Sheridan likes to work outside, he likes his films to have the open expanse of the West. Ben Richardson, his cinematographer, has proved himself capable of balancing the wide spaces with the needed CGI. There's one terrific scene near the climax where the glow from the fire bathes everything in an eerie, yellow glow, it's menacing and gorgeous, striking just the right tone in the picture.
Those Who Wish Me Dead has chills, thrills, excitement, and hope, but it left me pretty cold. That's saying something for a film that includes an intense and out of control wildfire. If you want an action movie to pump your adrenaline, this may be one to check out, but if you're looking for something with real meat to it, this one's not for you.